Paranoid city

Belgrade is gripped by rumors that NATO is about to begin bombing again.

Published March 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

A new panic has gripped Belgrade, as a rumor spread across the city that NATO might soon bomb Serbia again. As tension mounts in southern Serbia, northern Kosovo and Montenegro, the Serbian capital is testing its air-raid sirens, gripped with fear of new bombing and civil war.

NATO has emphatically denied plans to bomb Serbia. But in this paranoid city, where power is constantly shifting, the fear itself is making waves across the political landscape.

The recent assassinations of warlord Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic and Yugoslav defense minister Pavle Bulatovic in Belgrade have added to the sense of the city's growing violence and anarchy, and the fear Belgrade itself will become engulfed by street-fighting.

Suddenly, young men in the Serbian capital are plotting exit strategies. One air traffic controller is trying to organize papers to get a job in Skopje, Macedonia. A downtown cafe manager is considering an invitation from his sister in Switzerland to come visit "just for a few weeks or months to see what happens." An anthropologist who possesses a prized Slovenian passport is prepared to move at the first hint of war.

Why do Serbs think NATO may bomb again, when all signs in Western capitals are that they have no such intention?

Regardless of NATO's denial, the sense of war's inevitability has been fueled by the government's recent issue of 100,000 conscription notices, mostly in southern Serbia.

Some believe that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has planted the rumor as a way to consolidate his own sagging popularity, and as an excuse to step up his repression of Serbian pro-democracy forces.

"Slobodan Milosevic is purposely causing a psychosis of danger of NATO bombardment," opposition politician Zoran Djindic said Sunday. "By causing fear among the citizens, Milosevic wishes to hide the failure of his economic policy and the very harsh situation in Serbia." Analysts point to a pattern of Milosevic using fear of conflict -- as well as the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo -- to quell dissatisfaction at home with his leadership and to put his population on the hunt for an external enemy for Serbia's troubles.

Meanwhile, many Serbs believe the West is looking for any excuse to overrun their country. They speculate that NATO could bomb on the pretext of protecting pro-independence forces in the neighboring Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, or on behalf of ethnic Albanians making incursions into southern Serbia, and Kosovo Albanians trying to reunite the ethnically partitioned Kosovo city of Mitrovica.

The fear of more NATO bombing has been front-page news here. "NATO is planning no intervention outside Kosovo or attacks on Serbia," said the headlines Thursday in an independent Belgrade paper, Glas Javnosti. Meanwhile, other Belgrade newsweeklies speculated that a NATO attack against Serbia would come March 23, the one-year anniversary of the previous bombing. Even a popular Serbian fortuneteller, Lev Gershwin, predicted in Belgrade's weekly newspaper the Weekly Telegraph that NATO would bomb Belgrade, but that the new bombing campaign would be fairly short and targeted at economic infrastructure.

"Certainly, it will be a war," said a burly taxi driver last week. "Between whom? Between the government and the people."

"I am going to postpone my trip to Spain," said one engineering student. "My mother is here, my sister is here. I can't leave them when there's going to be a war."

"NATO is going to bomb again," cafe owner Milan Potrebic said, "and people are going to take to the streets here with machine guns. Is that what America wants? We are in a concentration camp here, and we are waiting for the gas."

Albanian rebel incursions into southern Serbia have escalated fears that NATO could intervene in Serbia on behalf of the ethnic Albanians. Rebels killed one Serbian policeman and wounded one United Nations worker, sparking outrage at the perceived assault on Yugoslav sovereignty.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin fueled that outrage by criticizing Milosevic for beefing up Yugoslav military forces on the Montenegrin border with Albania, the border that pro-Western Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic had tried to open last week.

Opposition leader Vuk Draksovic has added to dark speculation that Serbia will descend into civil war. His political party controls independent Belgrade television station Studio B, which was raided, along with several other independent media, by police last week. "If the regime attacks and closes down Studio B and takes the eyes and ears from Belgrade ... it will bear all the consequences that may follow, because this city and this country will be defending Studio B," Draskovic said Thursday.

In this opposition lies a real threat of civil unrest. Over the weekend, in the town of Pozega, 2,000 people attacked a police car after officers closed the town's independent television station.

While Draskovic has emerged from the regime's assault on his television station appearing ready for a fight, other pro-democracy forces in Serbia have suffered stepped-up arrests, beatings and police harassment in the atmosphere of growing repression Milosevic has created.

In February, Milosevic held the Socialist Party of Serbia convention, in which he declared a new "development plan" that the student opposition leaders argue serves, in effect, as a declaration of a state of emergency. Suddenly police are arresting students, confiscating their posters and forcing them to sign papers stamped with "on the orders of the development plan."

Unshaven and haggard, a prominent student activist said he expected that the regime would take full advantage of the escalating panic overtaking Serbia. More than 100 activists in his student group, Resistance, have been arrested in the past month.

At a recent meeting, the student activist and his colleagues could not conceal their sense of doom. They fear that the sharp rise in arrests and beatings of student activists will be followed shortly by trials and prison sentences.

Approximately 2,000 NATO troops from six countries are scheduled to take part in maneuvers in Kosovo later this month. The student leader said those maneuvers will only make things worse for his group.

"NATO could not have planned the timing of its exercises more cynically," he said. "It comes right on the anniversary of the bombing. And everyone is expecting that it is just the prelude to new bombing again." Because the student groups are considered pro-Western by most Serbs, any action they take this month could end up playing into Milosevic's hands. "The opposition can't even choose a day to hold a peace rally during those maneuvers without seeming like complete NATO stooges and traitors."

A mutual fear of assassination seems to be the only thing uniting opposition leaders and regime officials.

"We all know he is going to be killed," one law student half-joked about the student leader. "We all know that."

But some in Belgrade are determined not to let the fear get to them. Psychology professor and leader of the Social Democratic Party Zarko Korac was beaten up by someone waiting in front of his apartment when he returned last week from the inauguration of Croatian President Stipe Mesic. But Korac said he refuses to submit to this obvious effort by the regime to intimidate Serbian democratic forces.

"That is what the regime wants, for us to be afraid," he said this week. "And I refuse to show it."

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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